Film Review: Dark Phoenix – X-men series goes up in flames

The X-Men franchise has gone on for almost 20 years, but given how Disney has now acquired Fox, it’s reaching its end. The last main entry and ending to the prequel series that started with First Class has chosen to adapt the Dark Phoenix saga to the screen (previously brought to film in X-Men: The Last Stand, by this film’s screenwriter and director Simon Kinberg). Though the series has been mostly good this decade, X-Men: Apocalypse was a let-down that showed that the X-Men series had little juice left. And that juice has now run out with a film that ends the series on a whimper rather than a bang.

10 years after X-Men: Apocalypse, the X-Men are now public heroes that work for the government. During a space rescue mission, a solar flare awakens a dormant alien force within Jean named the Phoenix. Professor X (James McAvoy) must deal with the consequences of suppressing it and the X-Men must try and stop her from causing chaos. Meanwhile, Jean goes to Magneto (Michael Fassbender) for help whilst being guided by an alien woman named Vuk (Jessica Chastain) who is encouraging her to embrace her power.

Dark Phoenix has gone through major reshoots, delays and retooling. With these factors in mind, it is understandable why one would expect an incoherent mess. Instead of that, we get a frustrating bore. The inexperienced Simon Kinberg being at the helm with his first directed feature had me worried, but to begin with I did somewhat appreciate his vision for the film being smaller, more character-driven and in the vein of less of a blockbuster and more of an art-house psychological thriller.

However, the result is some of the most lifeless filmmaking I have seen in some time. If you thought that Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies were bland, Kinberg ends up out-blanding him. His direction results in a blockbuster that has no sense of entertainment, scale or stakes. His sense of creating drama is best demonstrated by the fact that a major character dies and it legitimately feels like nothing. His sense of action is worse, as the few set-pieces there are have been staged so cheap and small scale that the high point is a climatic train battle that is still mid-tier compared to other CBM’s. Hans Zimmer’s score tries to add some atmosphere, but it’s low key and brooding tone adds to this film being cinematic Nyquill.

As for the story, the choice to skip a decade is misguided, as not only is the 90’s setting not used at all, but it also results in the feeling of having skipped over quite a lot of build-up to the main events. What does not help is the pacing of the story, that feels far too stagnant, never picking up and becoming engaging and always spinning its wheels. On a narrative level, X-Men: Dark Phoenix is uninspired and eventless, with a mid-way twist only being notable because of the continuity error it creates with the prior film. Even the interesting hook of Mutants being allies to humans is not explored much and even outright abandoned shortly after it is introduced.

‘ Jean Grey, despite being the main character, feels like a Macguffin that the story just pushes from place to place and Cyclops fairs little better.’ © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

As for characterisation, Prof X’s character is brutally assassinated and put in a position that aims for moral ambiguity but feels misguided. Beast’s (Nicholas Hoult) arc of going against the team and Magneto’s return is totally pointless. Jean Grey, despite being the main character, feels like a Macguffin that the story just pushes from place to place and Cyclops fairs little better. Everyone else is totally expendable.

The actors are mixed, as whilst some are still doing a good job as always, other actors get very little to work with (Evan Peters’ Quicksilver gets removed halfway through, before he can bring any life to the dreariness) and some look mostly bored (Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique is barely better than she was in Apocalypse). When Sophie Turner is given a chance to act, she does a stellar job at capturing Jean Grey’s torment, but the film does not focus on her enough. Jessica Chastain is also very miscast as the villain, not being remotely threatening or interesting.

Is this film a disaster? No. It flows together better than the cluttered Last Stand or X-Men Origins: Wolverine and unlike other Superhero films, the reshoots aren’t obvious and the editing is coherent. The only thing worth getting angry at is the unsatisfying ending that was clearly supposed to be a set up to a sequel we will not get. Overall, the entire enterprise feels passionless and dated. I guess it does bring the series full circle because this movie feels like it would have been serviceable in 2000, when the first film came out.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix is the most depressingly underwhelming finale to a series I have seen all decade and a major disappointment as a fan. And as a film on its own, it is simply a dull snooze-fest. The eventual X-men MCU reboot can’t come soon enough.


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